Sacramento County students are among the most absent in California

City leaders, police and community groups prepared to open the “Student Attendance Improvement Center” in this room at Luther Burbank High School in south Sacramento in 2006.
City leaders, police and community groups prepared to open the “Student Attendance Improvement Center” in this room at Luther Burbank High School in south Sacramento in 2006. Sacramento Bee Staff Photo

Sacramento County students have the worst chronic absentee rate in the region and a higher rate than all but two of the other 20 largest counties in California – Sonoma and San Joaquin.

According to new state data, 14.8 percent of Sacramento County students missed one-tenth of their classes last school year. By comparison, 10.8 percent of students statewide missed that many classes.

The new numbers were released this month as the state Department of Education launched a new information “dashboard” designed to give families and educators a new way to track school performance.

Officials at Twin Rivers Unified and Sacramento City Unified said they weren’t surprised by the numbers. Both districts have been monitoring chronic absenteeism and have tried to reduce absences. They had among the highest absentee rates in the county, along with San Juan Unified in the northeast county suburbs.

“We embrace and support the state making absenteeism and attendance part of its dashboard,” said Doug Huscher, assistant superintendent of student support services at Sacramento City Unified. “It allows us to really stay on top of it.”

Chronic absenteeism is correlated with poverty. Schools with many economically disadvantaged students tend to have more chronic absenteeism, state data show. Nearly 60 percent of students in Sacramento County last year qualified as low income, according to the data.

Sacramento City Unified had a chronic absenteeism rate of 15.4 percent. Although alternative and continuation schools had the highest rates, 30 percent of students at Luther Burbank High, 27 percent of students at Hiram Johnson High and 25 percent of students at Leataata Floyd Elementary missed at least one-tenth of classes.

The district last school year had 68 percent of students qualify for subsidized meals based on low household income.

Huscher said the urban district has many challenges, but won’t use external issues like poverty as an excuse. “We need to take responsibility to make sure we do anything we can,” he said.

Both Twin Rivers Unified and Sacramento City Unified are working to remove the barriers that keep students from attending school.

Data on school attendance is used to reach out to students and to offer them support, said Victoria Flores, director of student support and health services at Sacramento City Unified.

The district has opened student support centers at 24 schools to provide food, clothes, backpacks, umbrellas, bus passes and whatever else is necessary to get kids to school, said Ken McPeters, director of enrollment and attendance for the district.

Sacramento City Unified has worked on its attendance problem for five years with the help of a UC Davis research team and recently won a Safe Neighborhoods and Schools grant that will pay for two new hires in its attendance center.

Flores said attendance rates began improving at targeted schools, but fell again last fall. She attributed the slump to bad weather, a reduction in staff at support centers because of medical leaves and a fear among some immigrants about returning to school after the 2016 presidential election.

In Twin Rivers Unified, staff members called “attendance leads” offer resources to families of chronically absent students, sometimes making home visits. The north Sacramento area district has even more poverty than Sacramento City Unified, with 83 percent of students last year qualifying for subsidized meals.

“Sometimes we don’t know what the barriers are, so we work hard to meet with students and parents so they can talk to us a little bit about what is going on in the home,” said Rudy Puente, director of Student Services at Twin Rivers.

Twin Rivers Unified saw 20 percent of its students miss at least one tenth of classes last school year, roughly double the statewide average. Highlands Community Charter had the highest chronic absentee rate in the district – 77 percent of its students missed at least one tenth of classes.

Highlands Community Charter School, an independent adult school chartered through the district but not run by it, increases the district’s numbers significantly, Puente said.

“When we include the charter data, our overall number is at 20.1 percent; when we exclude it is 15.5 percent,” he said.

Puente said the district is still not satisfied with the 15.5 percent chronic absentee rate of its schools and has been working to reduce it.

Highlands Community Charter Executive Director Murdock Smith said the school’s absence rate is low for an adult charter. The adult school, which operates as a K-12, must follow the same rules as other schools, but its 1,800 students can’t be penalized for not attending school because they are adults, he said.

“There is no way they can hold adults to the same number (of days) as children,” he said.

On the other end of the spectrum, Eureka Union, a K-8 district serving Granite Bay and Roseville, had the lowest chronic absenteeism rate among large districts in the four-county region. About 4.2 percent of its students missed at least one-tenth of classes.

California has had a truancy law since 1874. School districts are bound by state law, which offers a short list of reasons student absences can be excused: illness, quarantine, jury duty, court appearances, religious observances, attendance at employment or educational conferences and working at an election precinct.

Diana Lambert: 916-321-1090, @dianalambert